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Exclusive! Russell Hornsby Talks About “Grimm,” The Theater + Calling Out Bullshit

Exclusive! Russell Hornsby Talks About "Grimm," The Theater + Calling Out Bullshit

Recently, I had a chance to interview a favorite actor of mine, Russell Hornsby, about his role on the new fantasy crime show Grimm, a fantasy crime series based on The Grimm’s Fairytales that re-airs tonight (Oct.29th) on NBC at 9:00pm/est and Tuesday (Nov.1st) on the SyFy network.

The consummate actor has appeared in, among others, Lincoln Heights, In Treatment, Gideon’s Crossing and The Good Wife.

In addition, he also has an extensive theater background which includes a role in August Wilson‘s Fences revival alongside Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.

We had a very candid discussion about his new show Grimm, the “burden of representation” issue, his love of the stage and calling out “bullshit” in our community when we see it. It’s definitely a worthwhile read.

When I first heard this concept I thought this should be interesting. Did you connect with this idea for Grimm easily?
I can’t say I connected right away to the whole idea. The reality is, I never watched Buffy and Angel, or any of those kind of shows, so I didn’t understand that world. So when I first read the script, it threw me just a little bit but then it helped to know my character was in the real world. Knowing that my character was basically a cop trying to figure out who done it and why. I stay on that realm and leave all the other mythical things to David and Silas.

So you play the partner in this?
Right. Hank Griffin partnered to Nick Burkhardt played by David Giuntoli
.
Since time has passed, how are you adjusting with it now?
I’m really excited. The creators, Jim Kouf and David Greenwalt, have really settled into a real world that you can believe in. We’re having the real word envelope the fairy tales. These creatures actually live among us and they’re of our world. So the idea being, these are folks who are altered beast who truly wear the mask. I’ve taken to the idea that it’s like that person who has a sixth sense. So basically, Nick is the guy who knows what they look like underneath. He can literally see the creature that they’re hiding.

Then of course, you get into good and evil. There’s good and evil inside us and amongst us. So you take the fairy tale aspect and fit it into the real world.

Wow. I’m excited about it. It’s certainly a different take.
Well there’s a different allegory to this idea. When you add the procedural element, it gives it something to nestle with. We’re not just saying “Once upon a time,” we’re saying “Today this happened.”

In doing my research, I noticed you played high school football. How did you cross over into acting?
I was a sportsman all my life and sort of did the chorus/acting thing on the side as an extra credit, have some fun, follow the girls type of thing. To be honest, I was really in pursuit of maybe getting a scholarship to go to college but there was one point where football left a bad taste in my mouth. What I mean by that, I realized that athletes were getting used. The favoritism involved, how some players were left holding the bag for others, the coaches and the way players get manipulated. So I realized real early, the game that was being played and decided to do something different. So instead of playing football my senior year, I did the fall play. I was struck by the joy I was able to have by creating a wonderful character.

Finally some friends of mine, when we were trying to figure out what do with our lives, said “Hey man, you should be an actor. They don’t do shit” And I said “You know that’s a good idea.” (laughing) I wanted to take the easiest route possible. So I was like “yeah that’s great” I’m going to apply to a bunch of schools. Low and behold, not realizing that brothers don’t do that. (laughing) So I did apply and my mother was very supportive of me. She just said “listen, I’ll support you doing this but you have to finish. You can’t quit.” So that was the deal. I wanted to quit but heard her voice saying you can’t. Four years later you get a degree in theater and your saying to yourself, “What am I going to do with this?”

At eighteen, I hadn’t thought about tomorrow if that makes any sense. So when you’re twenty-two now and you have a theater arts degree, which can’t do jack bone for you in the real world, you just got to keep going. I had to go full steam ahead into acting. Essentially, I was running scared instead of running free. I was so scared of failure, so scared of being broke and not having an opportunity that I put everything I had into acting.

You obviously have a very extensive theater background. How has that helped your work? Should most actors and actresses pursue that?
The reality is not everyone can do that. It’s not for everybody. The stage is not a game; it’s a high degree of difficulty. What I’m seeing a lot now, everybody is enamored with the whole idea of being on stage but not everyone is equipped with the tools to do it. It’s like this whole stardom thing and “I want to be America’s Next Idol.” People don’t understand, you have to have not just a talent but a useable talent. A commodifying talent, let’s keep it real. Just because you can play spoons on your knee – and you may be one of five that can do that – doesn’t mean you’re going to make a million dollars. (laughing)

Someone in an interview last week asked “What would you tell a young kid if he wanted to act?” and truth is, I’d tell him we don’t need you. If that’s enough to knock them off their axis, you damn skippy we don’t need you. The thing is, we got too many people now who think they can act. Just like we’ve got too many people who think they can sing.

We have this debate about “burden of representation” on S&A. In picking your roles, do you feel you have to toe the line on that?
Absolutely, but not to a point where it burdens me. I was raised in Oakland and I live in the spirit of the panther, you know what I mean? I feel like I’m a relatively conscious brother and live in a conscious way. I feel like when you hire Russell you’re getting all of that. So yes, you have to toe the line which means I have to represent myself well. I got to make sure I’m keeping my nose clean, staying out of trouble, making sure I treat my wife with respect and when I see kids on the street I got a kind word for them. You see what I’m saying? I’m representing myself on stage or screen with a high level of intelligence, dignity and respect. If I do that, I’ve done my job; I can’t walk around with my fist in the air and dashiki.

I don’t look at myself at having to be a spokesman for young black people because I feel like that’s what I represent, higher moral character.

You’ve done something that a lot of actors and actresses haven’t been able to do, you’ve steadily worked. What’s been your secret?
By the grace of God, first and foremost. When I was young growing up and even as a young adult, I had to take on a very blustery demeanor…a very showy, peacocky demeanor because I had to let people know I was the best. And where I came from, we called it “show and prove.” The squeaky wheel got oiled. So when I got to college, I said I’m the best and I believed it. Of course you have to help that manifest, you have to do the work. You also have to be blessed with a talent also and I think I am.

It’s a question hard to quantify. Somebody else would have to answer that. I’m not a “matinee-looking” kind of guy as my dear friend said so I don’t know. I think it’s my deep level of passion for the work, especially on stage. I think the passion I bring to the work, at times, can be unmatched.

Would you say the stage is your preference?
Yes, definitely, especially when you’re doing the right play. That’s something I realized, I’m not a man for all seasons. I’m not meant to do every play or every type of role but what I do well, I do well. So stay in your lane because when you stay in your lane, you don’t get caught speeding! (laughing)

What’s your ultimate dream role or project?
There’s so many. I would love to do a lot of the classics. I want to do those black classics like No Place To Be Somebody. I would love to do A Raisin In The Sun again. Amiri Baraka….bring those back. And I would still like to do August Wilson. I love August Wilson. I love telling those old stories.

Then the other thing, I want to do the new plays. I would like to embody the new, up-and-coming or existing writers new vision. I want to put my imprimatur on a work much like James Earl Jones, Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando did.

You’ve been in this business a long time. From your perspective, what can be done to help improve the landscape for black films right now?
Honestly, I think we have to go back to the root which is telling our stories well. In a lot of respects, we’ve kind of lost the art of storytelling. We have to tell our stories in a way that can be culturally dynamic, artistically dynamic and consciously important…and still be a commodity. We’re lacking original thought and ideas overall.

I know that it’s difficult because the landscape has changed and it‘s about making money. The black directors, male or female, or black story is not “the thing” anymore. We’re out of favor on a certain level. In the 90’s, we were rolling right? Spike Lee was killing it, John Singleton was coming up, the Hughes brothers…everybody was rolling and black was bad. It was cool to be black and everybody was working. I think we have to work consciously, and work together, and make sure we’re telling stories that say something. Here’s the thing, no matter how much money you make on a film, the people know when it’s bullshit. You can say and do some crazy stuff in which you’ll make a bunch of money but when you ask the people they’ll say “Man that was some bullshit but you can’t be deep all the time.” I’m saying it’s not about being “deep” it’s just about being good. When Spike did She’s Gotta Have It, it wasn’t all that deep it was just good.

We get tricked into thinking just cause it makes money it’s good. And we can’t be afraid to say “That’s some bullshit.” When you pay your money for something, you have every right to critique it. I’m sick of us treating everybody with kid gloves. See, that’s the real problem…We can’t sit down and have an honest dialogue about what’s good and what ain‘t. Everybody wants to qualify stuff. Did they get paid? Yes. Were they good? No. So then say it! This ain’t the school play. When you do that, the lane gets less crowded because people get off the damn street.

Do you find there’s a double standard in our community because you’re not allowed to say things against the work of others?
There is a double standard and I can’t stand it. That’s why were not taking seriously because our standards are low. It definitely needs to change.

The Grimm series is inspired by the classic Grimm’s Fairy Tales and stars David Giuntoli, Silas Weir Mitchell and Juliette Silverton as well. Check it out tonight (Oct. 29th) on NBC and Tuesday (Nov. 1st) on SyFy.

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